Today I thought I’d take a different approach to some problems many people bring on themselves whenever they travel. While there’s no right way to go on a trip, not really, there are some key mistakes that many people make, what I call the 7 deadly sins of travel. While not so serious as to land you in purgatory for eternity, individually they do limit your trips and if committed all at once would surely spell disaster for any traveler. So, with all of this in mind here are what I think comprise the 7 deadly sins of travel.
Of the Christian cardinal sins, pride has always been deemed the worst. In the travel context I think it also holds the same position. What is pride, really? Simply said, pride is the irrational belief that one is better, superior, or more important than others. Early Christians believed that pride led to most other character flaws, and they were probably right. It’s a personality trait though that I see far too often when I travel. I feel that many people travel the world as voyeurs, to see and experience things that live up to their preconceptions. At least from an American point of view, many of my countrymen want to see what the most stereotypical image of a destination may be but, sadly, in the process they remove themselves from the real travel experience. Pride in the travel context is the belief that you are better than other people, that your culture and background is superior and that travel for these individuals is akin to visiting an exhibit, watching something instead of living it. Nearly everyone I’ve met in all corners of the world have a fierce desire to share their cultures with outsiders – to teach them about their traditions and what their daily lives are like. This is as true in Sydney as it is the remote highlands of Peru. As humans, we deeply value connecting with others and that is never as important as when we travel. And yet I have seen many, many, travelers spend a week or two in a new place and never speak to a local resident, except to order food or to ask directions. Not nearly enough people take the time to sit down and talk with others, to ask them questions and to suss out what it is about where they live that is so interesting. You’ll learn more from a five-minute conversation than you ever will in a museum if you just take the time to ask a few simple questions.
I firmly believe that one of the most important benefits of travel is the education we all receive. Like it or not, you will learn something anytime you go on a trip whether it’s to a nearby city or across the world. We learn about people, customs, food, geography and politics, but it’s an education that should honestly begin well before the start of the adventure. I find it mind-boggling that more people don’t research places they intend to visit. That they don’t take the time to learn at least a little bit of history and culture so that their own travel experience will necessarily be better. It’s not good enough to think that you’ll just learn what you need to know as you go along. No, there are some things you should understand so that the broader picture of the new destination will make more sense. It ranges from a basic understanding of the government and politics but also other things, like knowing that the Black Forest is not actually black. (Yes, I met people who thought this.) Travel is an investment, but it is mostly an investment in ourselves. Just as you would do everything in your power to maximize investments in other aspects of your life, so should you when it comes to travel.
One of the truly magical aspects of the travel experience is that we can be anyone we want to be. We can create a fiction of sorts and be that daring adventurer or trier of new foods. Sadly though, there is a negative side to this – incredible levels of rudeness. I’ve seen otherwise mild-mannered individuals become raging lunatics when they travel, from yelling at airport employees to ignoring the basic tenants of civility towards other people when they’re on a trip. I’ve noticed an unnatural tendency amongst my fellow travelers to treat the rest of the world like an amusement park. They seem to forget that they’re not in Disney’s EPCOT (If you are, then ignore this) and have expectations for locals that are just bizarre. Leaving aside the man I once saw in a hotel screaming for two croissants and coffee, I also mean respect in terms of local traditions and beliefs. I’ve read a lot of articles recently about tourists thrown out of Cambodia or Myanmar for disrespectful behavior and I was shocked by it. Just as in Luang Prabang, where I saw dozens of tourists harass Buddhist monks all in the effort to get a photo, these individuals had no care or concern for the country they were visiting. Travel is all about personal and intellectual growth, so take some time before you even leave home and learn more about the places you are visiting. While most destinations forgive accidental rudeness and taboos, you don’t want to have to be in the position of being forgiven. Don’t give anyone the chance to feel insulted by your actions and do all you can to be respectful of the new country where you are but a humble guest.
The world is dangerous – this is a misconception expressed especially by my fellow countrymen and is oh so wrong. I think some folks have a natural inclination to distrust anything foreign, and every news story about any issue, no matter how trivial, only feeds into that false mythology. With some notable exceptions – war torn areas, North Korea, Baltimore – the world is on the whole a fairly safe place. Does that mean you should travel carefree? No, you always need to take precautions to both protect your money and things, as well as yourself. Basic common sense should help though, and as long as you aren’t overly foolish you should be fine. Regardless, you should never let a false threat (real ones are ok) of danger to stop you from traveling. The fact is that in many cases where we live is more dangerous than the places we want to visit. I’ve traveled all around the world many times but the only time I’ve been pickpocketed was right here in the U.S. So no, the world on the whole is NOT a dangerous place and you should start seeing it as soon as possible.
A lazy traveler is a bad traveler. When I travel I’m up early, out all day and I do as much as I possibly can each and every day. I know that my travel time is by definition limited and I honestly want to enjoy as much of it as I possible can. It’s a personality trait of mine, I get that, but for millions of people travel means sleeping in and then lying out on a beach all day. I can sort of respect that, but I honestly don’t understand it. You can do that at home, when you travel wouldn’t it be better to instead discover what makes the destination so unique and different? Not only that, but travel is itself a necessarily healthy experience. Any number of studies show that travel lowers blood pressure, decreases stress and is generally a healthy activity; for most people. That’s how stressed out we are as a culture, we can’t relax unless we literally rip ourselves away from our home environments. While travel can have its stressful moments, ultimately it’s about enjoying yourself. There are also more quickly realized benefits, like eating better and getting more exercise. You may not agree with the eating better part, but it’s true. From an American point of view, so many of our foods – even staples – are intensely processed or contain a dubious cocktail of chemicals that are probably hurting us more than we realize. Whenever I go to Europe I never shy away from great foods, and plenty of them. But I never gain weight and sometimes I lose it. Sure, part of that is thanks to physical activity but it’s also because for the most part I consume fresh, locally sourced foods. What is now a food trend at home is how most of the rest of the world eats and travel is a great way to realize its importance.
There is a certain misconception that only challenging travel experiences are worthwhile, a sentiment that simultaneously makes me both sad and furious. The travel world can be a strange place, full of people desperate to add to their portfolio of unusual experiences and others who want to visit as many countries as they can, if only the airport, just for the bragging rights. None of that need bother the average traveler, except when these same people put pen to paper and offer travel advice. Sadly, they really can’t. They’re not average travelers, they’re some strange class of super-tourists and 99.9% of people just can’t relate to them. I heard a TV interview a few months ago and the travel “expert” on the panel recommended destinations so remote and unlikely, that it was actually laughable. It makes me sad though, I don’t think that there’s any real place for arrogance in travel and ultimately it doesn’t help anyone. No, instead what we need is a legion of humble travelers. We need more folks who instead of looking for the most difficult to reach places, visit places that are accessible and in the process help us better understand them and inspire us to also visit. None of this is new, TV programs and print magazines have followed this train of thought for a long time and it is just common sense. Most people travel to certain places, so let’s offer them advice on how to better visit these places. YES, there is a need to broaden people’s horizons, to teach them about destinations they may not have known about and encourage them to visit. But that must be done in moderation with everything else; it can’t be the only song in your playbook. So bloggers, take a cue from our friends the travel magazines and yes, travel to and write about fantastical spots, but also visit and write about more manageable destinations as well.
Ok, I find myself lapsing into metaphysical travel blogger mode, but I can’t help it. I’ve been through this, I’ve lived a life I wasn’t happy with and through great effort made changes so that I could be happy. I see countless others, many of them my friends, who don’t do this and walk through life with a sack full of regrets. “I wish I could”, “that would be nice,” and “it’s too hard,” are their go-to phrases and each one is a cop-out. I’m a firm believer in the fact that if you want anything in life, if you work hard enough you can make it happen. Most people don’t want to put in that work though. This doesn’t have to mean an epic, around the world quest for self-enlightenment. It’s as simple as visiting any new place, but visit it you must. The benefits are too many and the risks too great to ignore that siren call of travel.
1 thought on “7 Deadly Sins of Travel”
Matt, we love this post. Love it. You’ve said many things that we’ve felt ourselves, and given us some good reminders about our best – and worst – behavior. Thanks for that. However, we have to admit to the sin of Pride. We are better rounded for our travel, and we are proud of that. We don’t think that makes us better than anyone, but it makes us better in general, if that makes sense. Great read.
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